Innovation Where You Least Expect It: Disruptive, Sustainable and Green Cement

Gary C. Bizzo  |

When you look at disruptive innovation you think high tech like Tesla TSLA changing the auto industry, commercial drones replacing couriers or blockchain changing the way we think about information security. You don’t think changes to the manufacture of concrete as a disruptive innovation. But concrete/cement is in the midst of a revolutionary innovation that will make concrete harder while reducing the carbon footprint.

CO2 is regarded as the cause of climate change. Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees and wood products, and as a result of some chemical reactions as in the manufacture of cement.

In fact, the manufacture of cement, the second most plentiful product on earth next to water, produces one ton of CO2 for each ton of cement. Columbia University estimates that producing a ton of cement requires 4.7 million BTU of energy, equivalent to about 400 pounds of coal. Geez!

The terms cement and concrete are often used interchangeably. Cement is an ingredient of concrete. It's the fine, gray powder that, when mixed with water, sand and gravel, forms the rock-like mass known as concrete. Cement acts as the binding agent or glue. CO2 results from the high heat in the manufacture of cement and the chemical reaction when calcium carbonate is heated and broken down to form calcium oxide. If you add the carbon footprint from the mining of cement’s raw materials and transportation you have a very large amount of CO2 production.

CO2 currently represents about 84 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted by human activities, totalling about 30 billion tons a year. On average, each year, three tons of concrete are consumed by every person on the planet. According to the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, cement is the third-largest source of human caused emissions of carbon dioxide.

Can we live without cement? Not in my lifetime. There is no substitute for its durability, strength and beauty (Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio is made of concrete).

Carbon offsets, renewable energy, wind and solar power are near the tipping point in innovative trends. As the efficiencies of wind turbines and solar panels increase the cost of renewable decreases. Energy storage will replace fossil fuel consumption and the world is embracing clean energy options.

The world is changing in attitude and climate and clean energy is the new mantra. Concrete manufacturing needed to change.

There have been efforts in the past few years to reduce the amounts of carbon emissions produced by concrete and some innovations are happening.

California-based Calera is recreating how coral reefs are made to reduce CO2. They worked with a California power plant at Moss Landing on California’s coast by running its burned pollution fumes through seawater with cement as a by-product.

Brent Constantz, founder of Calera, says, “the Calera process essentially mimics marine cement, which is produced by coral when making their shells and reefs, taking the calcium and magnesium in seawater and using it to form carbonates at normal temperatures and pressures. We are turning CO2 into carbonic acid and then making carbonate, all we need is water and pollution."

This process reduces the emissions by half. Calera says once it’s dried their product can replace the traditional Portland cement that, between China and the US, produces over one billion metric tons of product.

Similar processes are also being used by Carbon Sciences  (CABN) in Santa Barbara, Calif., that plans to use flue gas and the water leftover after mining operations, and New Jersey–based Solidia Technologies

that plans to accelerate the natural process of cement absorbing CO2.

The key to the adoption of this new concrete is to ensure that specialty cements have the same properties and the same or lower cost than Portland cement. Couple this with regulatory bodies, a conservative industry and the willingness of the construction industry to try new products, it’s an uphill battle.

Another approach that has gained a lot of interest across the United States and Canada is Nova Scotia-based CarbonCure Ready Mixed Technology. Not only does this process consume CO2, but the compressive strength improvements from an optimized injection of CO2 enable the production of concrete with a reduced binder content without sacrificing performance.

CarbonCure's technology utilizes CO2 that would otherwise be a waste product from factories (like a fertilizer plant). In CarbonCure’s process CO2 is injected back into the cement and mixed creating Nano particles that binds in a way that is stronger than the normal cement currently in use.

Rob Niven founded CarbonCure in 2007. Niven graduated with a Masters in Engineering from McGill University, where he studied the benefits of introducing CO2 to fresh concrete. While attending a United Nations summit on Climate Change, he was inspired by the global demand for solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

In a study conducted by CarbonCure over a 10-month period, the producer injected CO2 into roughly 56,000 yd3 of concrete with an average cement reduction of 5%. This resulted in savings of 600 tons of cement and 530 tons of CO2 emissions with no reduction in the performance of the concrete.

Putting this in economic terms, Niven says, “CO2 utilization products for the concrete sector alone create an estimated $400 billion market opportunity and have the potential to reduce up to 1.4 gigatons of annual CO2 emissions by 2030.”

CarbonCure's portfolio of technologies has the potential to reduce up to 700 megatons of annual global CO2 emissions and create up to $26 billion in new production efficiencies.

With emission reduction and the economics behind this process it’s no wonder CarbonCure has been on the receiving end of numerous green awards. They are finalists for the $20M XPRIZE in innovation in CO2 emissions, won the Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award in the environment category and have been named as a member of the Global Cleantech 100 for the last three years.

Christie Gamble, Director of Sustainability at CarbonCure said, "Every time I see concrete being made, I see it as a missed opportunity to save CO2 emissions. Maybe it will take 20 years; maybe it will take 50 years. Maybe something crazy will happen and it will happen in five years. But we're starting to see that process."

The more I see disruptive innovation in existing industries the more I realize they are driven by passionate, inspired persons who know that change starts with all of us.

The future is looking good!

Gary is the CEO of Bizzo Management Group Inc., in Vancouver – management, social media and start-up experts.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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